Book Review: The Libertarian Mind

The full title of this book is The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom, written by David Boaz, Executive Vice President at the Cato Institute. This is actually the second edition of Libertarianism: A Primer, published in the late 90s by Boaz.

So why did I read an introductory book on libertarianism? Well, it had been a while since I’d really looked at a libertarian book, especially critically. As discussed in What is Postlibertarianism? v2.0, I’ve strayed a bit from a libertarian absolutist, and that post in an attempt to carve out a space independent from both the Right and Left, but also perhaps libertarianism itself. It seemed this might be a good time to revisit some of the basics to see if I had forgotten what had made libertarianism so appealing in the first place. David Boaz’s introduction to the political philosophy seems to be a good way to do that.

Intro and Libertarian History

The book is a solid introduction to libertarianism. Boaz discusses important libertarian talking points like the fact that the two-party political system in the US doesn’t necessarily hold all the answers. He also does a fair job tracing the history of liberalism in political philosophy, culminating in modern libertarian thinkers. That’s one of the better chapters of the book, and similarly, perhaps the most useful segment is Boaz’s recommended reading list on various libertarian topics, located in the final pages. There are literally hundreds of libertarian readings and authors mentioned, and I plan on adding a few to my future reading list.

I have never been as familiar with the pedigree of American conservatives and American progressives, and I would be curious to see what their similar reading lists or genealogy would look like.  Libertarianism included routes through Locke, Mill, Mises, Friedman, Nozick and many more. It was clearest here that while I may not agree entirely with the label of “libertarian” today, there is a broader liberal tradition, wide and powerful in scope, and it is squarely within that tradition that I find myself. 

Obviously then, I had broad strokes of agreement with this book in many areas, but I wanted to point out a few areas that I thought did a good job of applying libertarian critiques or approaches.

Positives

Boaz talks a lot about rights and rights-based approaches, which I’m not quite as excited about as I used to be (see Rules and Heuristics). Nonetheless, he makes a strong case for the consequentialist benefits of property rights: they reduce the amount of issues that must be political. Application of property rights settles disputes, allowing individuals to make choices about who they interact with and how. Alternatively, if the state is dictating policy, e.g. education policy, all education is determined by politics. Political losses then have greater effect on individual lives, since it’s often harder to opt-out of state policies you dislike.

Relatedly, the chapter on pluralism and tolerance was excellent. Also well stated was the chapter on the rule of law. This is a nebulous concept, and I think Boaz does a good job discussing the many aspects, including constitutional law, the importance of judicial activism (would have been surprising to me 8 years ago) to protect individuals from government, general warrants, regulatory loopholes for specific companies, and overcriminalization. Each of these are fairly disparate parts of law, but they are all important breaches of a uniform rule of law, and contribute to delegitimatize the state and democracy. 

The chapter on public choice theory resonated, and I especially liked the terminology of a “package deal” to refer to political candidates, and how that could be so limiting. And as you would expect from a libertarian, the discussion of free markets, price theory, opportunity costs, and free trade were pretty straightforward. One highlight included the importance of entrepreneurial profits and the value of entrepreneurs seeing value missing in the economy, taking risks, and profiting by fulfilling needs. Another was the argument that the “balance of trade” wasn’t a useful measure since it doesn’t acknowledge that by definition, goods are traded by individuals. Individuals benefit from trade because they wouldn’t take part in it otherwise. Trade balances don’t take into account international supply chains routed all over the world, simplifying imports to two countries, when value added can come from dozens.

Negatives

Now for things that didn’t quite work. The book acknowledges the fact that several of the founding fathers were slave owners. Nonetheless, since the book doesn’t spend much time on anything, it only lends a couple pages to the issue of slavery. That isn’t going to convince anyone from the social justice movement.  This is a recurring issue. Many times I did object to a point the book brought up, but there’s no time for any in-depth discussion, so most of the time I remained unconvinced.

For example, in the rule of law chapter, Boaz attacks the concept of unaccountable bureaucracy, demonstrating how bureaucratic rules can be authoritarian with no accountability. Nonetheless, elitist independent agencies could make more sense than democratic Congressional loudmouths; the alternative to bureaucracy isn’t necessarily that the government doesn’t perform that job, but that it is left to unrestrained democratic pressures. 

The book also spends some time arguing not just that welfare is expensive, but that it’s actively harmful. I’m not sure how much I agree, but welfare for the poor never seems like it should be the first priority of spending cuts; the top federal budget items are Medicare, Social Security, and Defense spending. I actually thought the discussion of mutual aid societies was intriguing although I’m not sure how well they’d work now. It was one of the better answers I’d heard of for the critique that bad things will happen if we get rid of the welfare state. Another related point: the book doesn’t state what a “good” tax level would be, just that we have high taxes now. It’s not wrong, but I found it a bit of a cop-out.

Finally, the book isn’t too concerned about inequality, like you’d expect. However, the claim was that innovative markets would constantly challenge and undermine those at the top, with new products and markets catapulting new successful entrepreneurs at the expense of the old. Again, this could be true, but there wasn’t enough time to really dig into it; certainly the Forbes top 400 richest people in the world would constantly change as markets shift over time, but would the richest 1% really be in much danger? Is it ok if they are not? Libertarians would probably also argue that market innovation and technological progress are more important than inequality (a poor person in 2018 has much more material wealth than a rich person in 1968), but are there political risks to allowing for large inequality? The book doesn’t have time to answer these critiques.

For my takeaways: the book did a bit better than I expected on pointing out that I still generally agree with the bulk of classical liberalism/libertarianism, and my critiques are more like policy tweaks than philosophical deal-breakers. However, it’s only an introductory book, and due to my knowledge in these areas, specific issues I have with libertarian orthodoxy weren’t well addressed, nor was they really meant to be.  I will definitely be looking at the extensive “For Further Reading” list for some libertarian writings on specific topics I’m concerned about. I would also state that this is a pretty good introductory book if you want 350+ pages from a representative libertarian. If you have already studied a lot of libertarian thought, I doubt you’ll find too much new here.

 


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Links 20160216

In my previous blog, I used to compile lists of interesting links. I’ll start doing that here on an irregular basis.

Scott Alexander has a new post in the “Slate Star Codex critiques social justice” series. It discusses a study which looked at the effects of coder gender on Github pull request approval.  It looks like the study had fairly neutral results but was widely reported by the scientific press as proving sexism in tech.  As someone who works in the tech industry, all I learned was that I need to contribute more to open source projects.  If you want to get fully paranoid about social justice, read Scott’s long comment on the social justice movement on the same post (reposted to reddit).

Justice Scalia passed away this weekend. He was a big deal, whether people liked him or not, and now there’s a big political fight on whether the Republican Senate will allow Obama to appoint a nominee. I’m pretty certain (90%) that Obama will nominate someone, even if congressional Republicans say they don’t want to confirm anyone. I have no idea what the chances are of a person being confirmed. Michael Cannon at Cato says the Senate has the power to deny a nomination until next year. I bet a lot of progressives would be horrified and yell about how Obama won the election in 2012, but I think the claim is pretty solid; Congress is supposed to be the most powerful branch after all. Senators were all elected as well, and court appointees are required to have input from both the President and Senate.

It’s also interesting because I’ve been recently watching Crash Course: U.S. Government and Politics.  The episode on separation of powers is relevant to our Scalia discussion.

Robin Hanson on “Why I Lean Libertarian”.  His reasoning is pretty close to mine.

Amusing post on Status 451: San Francisco has a Shameful Homeless Problem.

From Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog: First-order Libertarianism, Second-Order Public Reason Liberalism. It concerns the question of whether libertarians can allow non-libertarians to set up their own society in a libertarian world.

Great introductory crypto video for public key cryptography.  It discusses the discrete logarithm problem and a Diffie Hellman key exchange. That channel actually has a lot of good videos concerning encryption, although nothing explaining exactly how elliptic curve crypto works.  It’s obviously dark magic.

Scott Sumner mentions a comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky on EconLog.  The post is a fairly complex way of discussing the issues the Fed is facing in trying to jumpstart the economy, but it has a cool reference to Newcomb’s Paradox.

I haven’t mentioned it before on this blog, but I really hate Daylight Savings Time. It’s just so dumb. The Washington Post has an interesting article about a proposal to get rid of all timezones. It would take a huge amount of getting used to, but it seems possible. For example, in China, the entire country is on Beijing time; people out west just wake up and go to sleep later…which I’m sure they were doing already, but now they don’t need to worry about time changes across the country. I like it, but mostly because it would end Daylight Savings Time.

Old post, but interesting: How to Change Public Opinion from the Niskanen Center.